It isn’t going to happen, at least not this year. Nonpartisan forecasters predict Democrats will hold on to their 7-to-4 advantage in House seats and may even pick up an eighth.
The Republicans’ weakness in the Old Dominion results from three trends, which echo their challenges in much of the rest of the country. President Trump has acquired what analysts call a “toxic” reputation in the state. Demographic shifts that already helped Democrats in Northern Virginia have now spread to suburbs around Richmond and Hampton Roads. And a split between hard-line conservatives and center-right voters hampers the GOP’s ability to compete.
“Virginia has become a safely blue state,” said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. “The Republican collapse in the western Richmond suburbs is breathtaking.”
Assuming the forecasts are correct, the Nov. 3 results will cement the Washington region’s congressional delegations as overwhelmingly Democratic.
Maryland’s House incumbents are expected to cruise to reelection, maintaining a 7-to-1 Democratic majority in the Free State’s delegation. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) is heavily favored to win reelection, and the other three Democratic senators from the region are not on the ballot this year. D.C. voters are expected to reelect Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to a 16th term.
In the presidential race, Maryland, Virginia and the District are all safely in Joe Biden’s column.
The region’s political drama, therefore, is all in the competitive Virginia House races. In 2018, three Democratic women won seats previously held by the GOP and flipped the delegation blue. They were Reps. Jennifer Wexton in Northern Virginia, Abigail Spanberger representing many of Richmond’s suburbs, and Elaine Luria from the Hampton Roads area and Eastern Shore.
Wexton’s 10th District — including all of Loudoun and parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties — has turned so Democratic that she is seen as easily retaining her seat in a contest with Republican challenger Aliscia Andrews.
Spanberger (7th District) and Luria (2nd District) are in less liberal jurisdictions, so GOP hopes are higher there. Spanberger faces Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper), while Luria is in a rematch with former congressman Scott Taylor (R).
“They look like they’re going to survive,” said Larry Sabato, director of the U-Va. center. “You would think they would win another term, partly because Biden is doing better than Hillary [Clinton] did in Virginia.”
The Democrats may even pick up another seat if Democrat Cameron Webb beats Republican Bob Good in a race for the 5th District seat now occupied by Rep. Denver Riggleman (R). That would be an upset in the historically conservative district in central and southern Virginia. It’s currently rated a toss-up.
Virginia’s political transformation began in the Northern Virginia suburbs as they became more racially diverse and attracted more professional and white-collar workers who leaned Democratic. Now those same trends have emerged in suburbs downstate and are turning the Richmond and Hampton Roads metro areas blue.
“There’s a demographic shift,” Virginia political commentator Bob Holsworth said. “Trump campaigns as if the suburbs are filled with Ozzies and Harriets, and they’re not anymore. They’re extraordinarily diverse.”
The backlash in 2018 against Trump’s election, especially among suburban women voters with college degrees, is expected to be repeated this year.
“The suburban surge that people saw in 2018 is nothing compared to what’s coming,” said Rachel Bitecofer, editor of the Cycle and an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a group of current and former Republicans who oppose Trump. “The Republican Party is going to get hammered.”
Trump’s ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic has also contributed.
“Voters were already sort of over Trump, and covid just reinforced how much over Trump they were, and that wet blanket has laid over Republican candidates,” said Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.
The Democrats have benefited by nominating candidates like Spanberger and Luria, who have portrayed themselves as moderates and unifiers rather than left-wing partisans. Both broke with their party this month to vote against the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill approved by the House. Spanberger is a CIA veteran, and Luria served in the military, which gave them national security credentials.
Republicans eager to oust them — and protect the GOP seat in the 5th — have struggled with internal ideological battles.
“Republicans in Virginia are so massively disorganized and fighting among themselves that they can’t effectively take back those seats,” Kidd said.
The more conservative Republicans have tended to win nomination battles at a time when suburban voters are moving to Democratic positions on issues such as gun control, the Affordable Care Act and LGBTQ rights.
“The Republican Party in Virginia has largely driven suburban voters away since Bob McDonnell won [the governorship] in 2009,” Kidd said. “Virginia is a more moderate political state than the Republican Party has been expressing itself.”
The GOP may have a chance to recover in the gubernatorial election next year, especially if current polls are correct that Biden will be president. Electoral backlash has often led Virginia to elect its governor from whatever party is not occupying the White House.
But the contest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination is already shaping up as an ideological showdown that could strain party unity. Chesterfield’s pistol-packing state Sen. Amanda F. Chase is running as a Trump-style candidate. More traditional Republicans are hoping that former House speaker Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights) jumps in.
The Democrats will have their own internal battle over how far left to go in picking their gubernatorial nominee. Meanwhile, they’re relishing being on top.